Friday, January 23, 2015

Pair of Xiao Xiao Xi Shis

I've been searching high and low for a reasonable yixing to brew Su's teas.  Yixing teapot buying always fills me with a sense of dread. First I know with 100% certainty that I'll chip the spout or finial given time.  Second I fear I'll end up with something wonky, dribbly, or fake with my inability to spend more than two figures on a teapot.
To ease my shopping pain and fear or chipping, Su recommended a set of ten mini Xi Shis in a rainbow of yixing clays from a Malaysian shop that were beyond adorable.  If I smash a few, I'd be sad but  I'll have backups to last me at least a decade.  If my husband had gotten me something like this, I would be the happiest tea wife in the realm.

Out of all the classic forms, I am a huge fan of Xi Shis even before I knew it was fashioned after a famous beauty(Xi Shi)'s breast. No historical record exists of whether or not the teapot was modeled after her right breast or left breast but the bodacious Xi Shi probably was a creature of extreme symmetry. And most likely the potter did not have such privileged access anyway and had to just imagine it all.

Most of us started life happily suckling mother's milk and so it's natural such a shape should subconsciously evoke fond feelings.  I love natural shapes without hard edges so even without a boob and nipple motif, I would have chosen Xi Shis anyway.  The more I stared at Su's recommendation, I had a fuzzy sense of familiarity.  And in a most bizarre twist of coincidence, I actually had two of those very pots hiding in my tea closet- a dead match in size, silhouette, color, and potter's mark.

Long long ago I bought these mini Xi Shi teapots on my honeymoon in Korea.  They were about 5000W or ~$4 each. I remember being super excited because I'm always on the lookout for small token gifts for friends while traveling. I dragged my husband to pretty much every ceramics shop in Insadong trying to buy more of these but the two happened to be the only two in the entire area. (I was warmed by the thought at least I knew a good thing when I saw one and I don't have to regret that I didn't buy more.)  I thought back then they were not teapots but ink droppers for use in brush calligraphy because they dispense so little water.  

I brought them out last week late at night and was giddy to discover they are surprisingly workable little pots.  You can not imagine how ecstatic I was that I almost woke up my soundly snoring husband.  The little guys are a bit fiddly in the way that most little pots tend to be if they have one unfiltered hole that can get easily clogged and let too much tea crumbs out. But if you are used to them like I am, they are alright.   So thanks to Su, I have rediscovered two yixing teapots in my closet.  I'm so glad I mistakenly thought they were decorative all these years because otherwise they would have been chipped and useless by now.

I've been cheerfully brewing with these teensy 45ml pots and I almost want to buy up the other eight colors- just to reunite the family so to speak.  They cost ten times as much now so I might save my money for an adult sized pot.  Su tells me 120ml is a good size to bring out the true flavor of puerh so my search still continues.  Also Su wisely advises me to brew the same tea in the same consistent way to gauge aging- same teapot, same water, same tea to water ratio.  I'll need multiples of the same teapot to carry me through a few decades once I find one I like.  The search continues...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Blending Russian Caravan Tea

In the last pages of my favorite travelogue- Tent Life in Siberia, George Keenan writes his team's progress was much hindered for about 1000 miles as the road was clogged by endless horse caravans quarter of mile to a mile long carrying hundreds of hide-bound boxes of tea.  The China tea had journeyed across the Gobi- he writes such tea caravans left Irkutsk daily for Nizhni Novgorod.

"Russian Caravan" is a historic blend that was delivered by and named after such tea caravans from China to czarist Russia. The often cited camel caravans must have been for the segment of the journey across Mongolia - that would be the double humped Bactrian camel if you need a visual aid.  I had my first cup of Russian Caravan from a blue Twinings bag in college.  Only recently at work, I've gotten into the habit of blending my own Russian Caravan in the mornings. Drinking straight up Lapsang Souchong daily has dulled my palate and one needs variety. 

Commercially available Russian Caravan is not as consistent as Earl Grey and blends vary wildly by vendor.  Most often I've seen Lapsang Souchong added to other hongcha- often Keemun or Yunnan Gold and even Assam.  Although the maltiness of Assam pairs well with LS, it's the least authentic of the recipes as the Caravan teas were historically Chinese in origin.  Sometimes even oolong is added.  I've also seen blends where even LS is left out.  

As you well know, it's never a good idea to drink any LS - blend or otherwise- from a teabag or from any commercially mass available source.  The tar smoke will kill you.  You'd have to make own your blend if you wanted quality Zhengshan Xiaozhong in your Russian Caravan. The joy of pinching together a blend right before brewing allows one to match the blend to the exact mood.  Cold dark mornings- you can go for more maltier blend with lower grade LS and dian hong.  In the afternoons, I tend to add more oolong for a lighter sweeter taste to finer grade AA+ LS with quality Darjeeling. On the spot blending is super fun.

On the Northern California coast, you can visit the remnants of a Russian Settlement at Fort Ross.  The Russians were here to hunt otter- one of the few goods the Chinese coveted.  In order for Russians to trade for Chinese teas, porcelain and silk, the Pacific Northwest otter population was wiped out and still today you won't see otters north of Monterrey Bay.  It's sad but if you've ever touched an otter pelt, you will know why.  Even-though the idea of an otter pelt is evil as otters are an endangered species and impossibly cuddly- after caressing the sample pelt at the museum, I instantly wanted such a luxurious scrap of fur for myself.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tea Plans for a Seaside Journey

When one feels a bit run down in the winter, we Northern Californians often make a ready getaway to the raw beauty of the Pacific coast.  To chase away the January blues, my husband booked an airbnb beach house with a full kitchen so I enthusiastically stuffed a cooler full of sausages, duck eggs, salumi, pork loin, soft cheeses along with a hamper loaded with a full head of pineapple, ginger bread cookies, chocolate cookie, two kinds of dried figs, pistachios, various snackage kits, along with a half a dozen aged shengs and obligatory LS.  My head was massively plumped up with various eating and brewing plans.  What could be more romantic and relaxing than a pork laden picnic basket by the seaside?

My plans however received a cruel kick in the nuts from the gods of the sharing economy.  The rented house exuded a strong scent of mold, detergent, funk and  patchouli so unpleasant my husband and I had an immediate allergic reaction; it was clear neither of us could be inside the house without feeling ill.  Due to the cancellation policy, the owner was willing only to release $155 out of the $350 total bill.   Friends- I have to tell you that it was having to deal with various puerh vendors and tea mishaps and that gave me the mental reserve to push through and receive a full refund plus an airbnb voucher.  Actually in the back of my mind, I was secretly planning to funnel that money into my teaware fund if I was able to reclaim it since my husband had already given up on the $200. 

We hastily transferred to the only inn in town.  Although my husband procured the largest suite in the establishment, Captain Davenport's Retreat had three love seats but only one coffee maker and nary an icebox to keep my sausages chilled.  I was so stressed over the earlier incident I unpacked my magic eraser and spent a good twelve minutes scrubbing coffee smudges off the filter basket.  It's totally worth it to remove the coffee taste and odors- I was able to make many reasonable herbal dandelion brews without any coffee flavor.  Serious tea was not meant to be on the coffee maker only due to inadequate water temperature.  Next time, I won't be so woefully unprepared and will travel with my portable stove and teapot.

During breakfast next morning, I grudgingly ordered the standard English Breakfast which turned out to be a bag of Bigelow- at least the management truthfully labeled them as "Cut Leaf Teas" on the menu so I didn't have to get my hopes up.  After a few sips I was firmly in regret city- the tea tasted terrible. I noted the exact same unpleasant dried anchovy profile I suffered from using hard water last month in Virginia.  Can't do much about bad municipal water at the restaurant and vowed never to buy tea around these parts ever again.   So on the second morning even after my serious tirade about water hardness and poor tea quality the day before,  my husband confidently orders black tea while I give him all sorts of hairy eyeballs without effect.  After the waitress leaves, he says with no amount of sass, "I'm not a proprietor of a tea blog and this Earl Grey suits me just  fine".

Despite the tea plans left in a ditch, the seaside town of Davenport had much to offer. Although I didn't quite meet any hobbits in the woods,  those cypress groves gave you a most delicious Middle Earth feeling that I had to photoshop Bilbo in. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Random Tea Confessions

Ever since Hobbes bravely came out of the closet as a hongcha drinker and a band camp attendee,  I thought I would entertain you dear reader with some confessions of my own. 

1. My husband makes me a milky mug of Darjeeling every morning before I head out to work. Even though I swill copious amounts of hongcha(most of it bagged)  I mentally don't count it as tea just as medieval drinkers did not count ale or cider as alcohol.

2. I buy lottery tickets because I totally want to mega-splurge on five-figure teas.

3. My friends think I'm super busy and that's why I'm such a social deadbeat. Sometimes I spend hours zoning out deciding which tea to brew and then most of the day brewing.
4. I've become delinquent on taxes because the bill was lost under a pile of Kunming Post boxes.  

5. I like to fondle and sniff my young shengs at night.  Shu inspection however belongs in the safety of daylight.

6. I was rather put out when Celestial Seasonings discontinued Almond Sunset. I haven't drunk it since college but I just liked looking at the picnic scene on the box at the grocery store.

7. I've come to the realization that puerh fails to yield satisfactorily to a rational empirical approach not because there are too many dynamic variables with some of them unknown but because the principal instruments involved, my tastebuds, are unreliable and unpredictable.  

8.  I break out into a special wiggly dance when a tea is really good.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Yixing Gaiwans

I've been using mostly ceramic gaiwans to brew as it's the easiest way to gongfu allowing me to drink puerh even at work.  Recently I smashed a gaiwan lid and needed a replacement.  For variety, I thought I would look for a cheap replaceable yixing gaiwan.   A bit of yixing clay would help diffuse the basement taste on my budget wet-stored pu and I'm not one to waste a precious teapot on such teas.

I spotted this simple $10 zisha clay gaiwan from an ebay vendor who sells the oddest mix of teaware,  cosplay wigs, erotic anime pillows,  Tibetan "babao male enhancer" pills, and quilted doggy tents.  If you are a tea drinking anime addict with a small dog and a potency condition, this might be one of the few one-stop shops to cater to your exact needs.

Despite the suspicious mix of goods, I saw some mica and silica content on the surface closeup of the gaiwan so I pushed buy.  It's most likely low quality yixing clay but I'm willing to give it a go as my plan B is to use it as a tea caddy if brewing doesn't work out.  It will take another week or so to reach me.  At the higher end, there is the Di Cao Qing gaiwan on ebay but for $38 with shipping, this purchase defeats the purpose of having a cheap breakable gaiwan.

The other yixing tea set which did arrive today is this hybrid contraption which is more like a lidless houhin than anything else. I initially didn't want to buy it because the aesthetics is butt ugly and I wanted to maintain some self respect.  But it's functionality appealed to my sense of practicality - side knobs to prevent finger scorching and a slotted lip to keep those wiggly tea leaves back.  But my better judgement was absent as this thing pours much slower than expected and I may ask my husband to drill a few more holes.  He has enlarged holes on ceramic and yixing teapots for me using a special drill bit before and he really owes me after what happened next.

My husband fingered the curve of the attached demi-top quite suggestively and asked me if it was a miniature chamberpot.  You can't see it from this angle but the demi-top curves perfectly as if it was designed to accommodate a seated pair of buns. You can imagine how such a comment will flavor my tea sessions.

Friday, January 02, 2015

90s Malaysia Stored CNNP Qing Bing

Even though I planned to hang up my blogging hat for 2015, my tea life got a spectacular boost today and it would be most selfish of me not to share my tea learning.  I was the unfathomably lucky recipient of a package of aged teas including a liu bao from 1930's.  Nineteen thirties.  From whence did such a magical package arrive?

Most tea readers know the legend of Su- a true tea connoisseur who has been devoted to puerh for multiple decades.  Unlike you or me or even MarshalN or Hobbes- she has actually tended her sheng beengs into full maturity in the favorable climes of Malaysia.  She knows aging intimately and deeply in a way I yearn to but I will never catch up to.  No matter.  I'm utterly moved that Su wants to help me further my understanding of aging through teas that are not available to me.

This early 90s Qing Bing is a hefty chunk so I have many chances to brew it and even save for aging.  Su's generosity makes me blush but I'm giddily joyous she deems me worthy.

First sniff,  I'm seduced by the sweet sweet fragrance of dried plums of the dried leaf.   I'll probably sniff this every night.  When I taste incense and cedar in the brews,  I'm transported back to the time I visited Bulguksa temple and all my current worries drop off.

Su said this tea was strong and bitter when young and with the incense "jiang xiang" being more in the background.  Su casually tells me this Qing Bing will be a lot better in a couple decades.  The tea has a golden mouthfeel,  and I'm more than happy to enjoy this tea as it is now. 

After the session I started feeling sorry for my other teas.  I've read many reviewers state recently that '90s $100-$200 wet stored cakes are worth getting as being easy to drink now.  I've had those samples and after this Qing Bing, I really don't want to bother.  I don't want to go back to traditional storage or Kunming dry storage- this Malaysian dry storage is a lovely thing to behold.  Su tells me this is "just a Qing Bing", that if I tried the Haoji and Mark series teas, I'll be spoiled for life.   

Sometimes having the best can be dangerous if you can no longer enjoy the "inferior" versions.  But I'm of the mindset it's always worth trying the best to lay out your reference points.  I enjoy no shortage of mid-range versions (chocolate, olive oil, salumi, jams) regularly even after having had the best.  The best should be reserved and savored for special occasions and now I have a selection of rare teas to enjoy on my upcoming birthday. Thank you Su!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Heart's Desire

The first tea of 2015, I brewed up one of the few precious teas in my possession.  Happy New Year.